Posted by TCIPF Staff: Written by NFL.com Home Page Editor Henry Hodgson, a self-proclaimed “exiled Brit working in LA.”
The world was a very different place in 1986, when the Chicago Bears last made the trek across the Atlantic to play a game at London’s Wembley Stadium. No internet exposure to the NFL, expensive international travel and a sudden explosion of interest in ‘Americana’ meant that the arrival of the Bears on British shores was greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm ‘The Beatles’ were met with when they made the opposite journey two decades earlier.
To understand fully why the Bears were greeted as conquering heroes, we have to rewind three years to the point that fledgling British TV station “Channel 4” made the decision to air NFL games for the first time on British ‘telly’. Each week, in timeslots that pitted them against yawners like “Antiques Roadshow” and “Songs of Praise” (a religious show), this new channel showed the best game from the previous weekend of NFL action, removing all ad breaks and cutting the game down to just 45 minutes.
Soon this new sport that featured athletes with cartoon-like skills and wearing space-age uniforms captured the imagination of the country, to the point that three years later it seemed the entire country stayed up for the midnight kickoff of Super Bowl XX to watch Chicago beat the Patriots. Throughout the course of the 1985 season, one team kept showing up again and again – the Bears, who captured the imagination with the incredible talents of Walter Payton, the charisma of Jim McMahon and a hard-hitting defense led by the intense Mike Singletary. However, one player rose above them all in the British collective consciousness, 330-pound rookie defensive tackle William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry, who seemed to encapsulate everything about this strange foreign sport, and quickly became a superstar in the UK.
When it was announced that the Bears and Cowboys would be playing an exhibition game at Wembley during August of that year, the response was overwhelming. As a nine-year old who had fallen in love with the sport two years earlier – albeit with the Dolphins, who had memorably ended the Bears’ hopes of a perfect season the previous season – I immediately went to work on trying to persuade my parents to get tickets for the game. It turned out that at least one hundred thousand other people had too, and after a nail-biting wait I discovered that tickets for my father and I had somehow been secured to join the capacity 83,000 crowd on the day.
The week prior to the first American Bowl game saw newspapers and TV stations fawning over the two visiting teams, but Tom Landry’s Cowboys were a distant second to the love shown to the Bears, and particularly ‘The Fridge’. Through the week he was pictured wearing a British policeman helmet, outside Buckingham Palace, and of course with the other stars of the show – the cheerleaders. Ten years later, now as an NFL employee charged with escorting Perry during his 1996 season playing in NFL Europe for the London Monarchs, Perry told me that the warmth of the welcome a decade earlier played a big part in him coming out of retirement to play in the UK again.
The day of the game was overwhelming, and retains a nostalgic tinge even now. Several things stand out, like the hundreds of fans playing a mass game of touch football in the car park outside Wembley Stadium that at times had more than one ball being used, or the lack of NFL merchandise being worn by fans arriving at the game (it was virtually impossible to buy in the UK at the time) compared to afterwards when every merchandise booth had been cleared out and fans left with bags full of NFL gear. The most memorable moment for the vast majority of fans, though, was standing in the rain watching ‘The Fridge’ plunge into the endzone to seal the Bears’ 17-9 win over Dallas.
25 years later, the Bears return to London to take part in the fifth regular season game to take place at Wembley Stadium. Few fans back then, or even ten years ago, could have hoped to see annual regular games on British soil. The Bears and Bucs will be met on Sunday by an incredible rainbow coalition of fans from all 32 teams, gathered together for their yearly chance to taste the NFL in person. And many of those fans will look back to 1986 and the Bears’ last visit to the UK as the moment they caught the football bug.